San Diego extraterrestrial sightings heat up

Maybe what you saw was a UFO. On the other hand, maybe you're a liar.

Herr says he often refers Orion rejects to the San Diego UFO Society.
  • Herr says he often refers Orion rejects to the San Diego UFO Society.
  • Image by Peter Hannan

Allan Reta remembers October 14 as a night that was neither warm nor cool. He was standing in the front yard of his San Marcos home, holding his baby daughter in his arms. They had gone outside to look at the moon and the stars. Reta’s wife was in the kitchen, studying for a history exam. Their suburban neighborhood was quiet, except for some kids playing in a garage down the street.

The object in Ramona was witnessed by six people for 20 minutes in broad daylight. It disturbed animals, affected a compass, and caused television static.

The object in Ramona was witnessed by six people for 20 minutes in broad daylight. It disturbed animals, affected a compass, and caused television static.

Suddenly, Reta noticed a pattern of red lights in the eastern sky. “It looked like a W with an extra line,” he recalls. “I could tell this was something unique.” The 33-year-old stockbroker, who works for the Carlsbad office of Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc., called to his wife through the kitchen window. “Honey,” he said, “there’s a UFO out here.”

Julie Reta came outside, and both of them watched the red W move across the sky, flip over, and reconfigure itself into an elliptical shape; it looked “tilted,” according to the Retas. Suddenly, the red lights began blinking and rotating in a circular motion. When the object stopped abruptly over the western horizon, the Retas moved in the same direction many UFO witnesses do: they ran to the telephone to call the police. The dispatcher listened to their story and, instead of hanging up on them, gave them a hot-line number to call.

November 16, 1973. Two 11-year-old boys in Lemon Grove encountered a dark, disc-shaped object approximately 20 feet in diameter.

November 16, 1973. Two 11-year-old boys in Lemon Grove encountered a dark, disc-shaped object approximately 20 feet in diameter.

Jerry and Janet Clark live about a mile to the east of the Retas. On the afternoon of October 14, a Saturday, the Clarks were cleaning out their motor home. Soon after dusk, as they were locking up the RV, Janet Clark noticed some red lights in the sky; she describes them as “an oval pattern, but lying down flatter” Janet’s husband also saw the lights, and the couple gathered their four teen-agers and two adult friends together and watched the UFO from the backyard deck. As the object passed over their heads, its perimeter lights turned off, and a dark shape became visible. “It looked like a boomerang, and it was massively huge,” says Janet. “It was about the size of a football field.” What impressed her the most, however, was the silence. “There was not one bit of noise,” she states.

A second triangular object passed over the Clark group 20 minutes later. Six military jets were in pursuit. The object disappeared over the western horizon. Everyone went back into the house, and the Clarks’ 15-year-old son started telephoning his friends. One of them gave him the phone number of the Orion hot line.

Orion is a group of local ufologists (pronounced you-fologists) who run a 24-hour answering service for UFO reports. Named after a constellation, Orion’s purpose is to investigate UFO sightings in the San Diego area. This region has never been known as a hot spot for alien spacecraft, but that has changed in the last four months. Orion’s “field investigators” have interviewed the Retas and the Clarks (who don’t know each other) and looked into numerous other cases: a dark cloud with a conical beam in the Jamul area last September 26, a boomerang with red and blue lights that landed near Escondido on October 26, a silver cigar-shaped ship that flew over La Mesa on the afternoon of December 7, and four red-lit octagons that cavorted over downtown San Diego on December 8. The UFO witnesses include two hospital secretaries, a postal carrier, a U.S. Border Patrol supervisor, a grocery store owner, and San Diego Union columnist Michael Grant.

Orion investigators have no explanation for the recent rash of UFO sightings — or, as they prefer to say, “alleged” UFO sightings. Orion members like to use words like “reportedly” and “supposedly”; they desperately want to appear objective, skeptical, conservative, and above all, not mentally imbalanced. Many members of the group are engineers or scientists; several work, or have worked, at General Dynamics. But behind their logical exteriors, protected by a shirt pocket full of pens, something irrational is beating away: a faith in extraterrestrial life but with no real proof of its existence. As UFO believers, they’re willing to risk their reputations just to pursue the possibility that the universe contains other beings — or more precisely, higher forms of intelligence. Maybe the ufologists are motivated by a technological curiosity. Or maybe the yearning runs deeper than that.

Eric Herr is the founder of Orion. He gives his age as “late 40s” and describes himself as “a balding guy with dorky horn-rimmed glasses.” But Herr more resembles a stem but kindly high school principal. He has a precise way of speaking and appreciates the same in others. (“What exactly do you mean by ‘uh-huh?’ ” he once asked an interviewer.)

Herr moved to San Diego when he was a year old and has been busy accumulating information ever since. Although he has a degree in English literature, Herr shies away from reading fiction. It’s not, he says, a productive use of his time. He is vague about how he supports himself; it has something to do with private investigative work, but not the kind that involves following errant spouses. What he prefers talking about are his two inventions: a weapon that causes temporary paralysis and a device that can create silence in a room full of noise.

Like several other members of Orion, Herr belongs to Mensa, the international high-IQ club. Membership in Orion doesn’t require a written test, but those interested in joining do undergo a screening of sorts. Basically, Herr talks to them for a while and decides whether they make the grade. Members must be objective, intelligent, and knowledgeable, he says, with the emphasis on objective. Crackpots need not apply. His rejection rate is three out of four. “I’ve been ruthless,” Herr admits. One individual initially passed muster but was later rejected. (“He wasn’t kicked out,” Herr explains. “I just didn’t call him for meetings.”) The man’s offense? Stating his admiration for a certain UFO author who professes, among other things, that space beings capture Earth children, grind them up, add peroxide, and smear the mixture on their skin for nourishment.

Herr is slightly embarrassed over his apparent snobbery. “I don’t want to sound like a fat-head dictator,” he says. “It’s not a person’s IQ or cultural background that I care about. It’s their judgment. For every two rational, objective people interested in this subject, there are two or three gullible, overly credulous believers.” The problem with the overly credulous, he says, is that they reflect badly on all the ufologists. Herr cringes at the mention of Ruth Norman, leader of the Unarius group in El Cajon. The 89-year-old Norman has received extensive publicity over the years for her predictions of a Martian landing in Jamul. (She now predicts the landing date to be the year 2001.) Another local group, the San Diego UFO Society, is “new-age oriented” and “profoundly credulous,” according to Herr. But he likes the society’s leader and often refers Orion rejects to him. While membership in the UFO society does not preclude anyone from Orion, only one woman, a retired schoolteacher, belongs to both groups.

The 31 individuals on Orion’s roster are a mixed bag of occupations and callings. In addition to several engineers, there are two artists, a pharmacist, a computer programmer, two homemakers, an arbitrator for the state labor commissioner, a playwright, a medical researcher at UCSD, and a printer.

Meetings occur every other month, usually at someone’s home. Herr had hoped to rent a meeting room at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center but was barred by the center’s policy that prohibits rentals to groups associated with astrology or UFOs.

The “kook” stigma continually dogsthe serious ufologists. It explains why so many of them are cautious, even paranoid, about any kind of publicity. (Several members of Orion did not want their names mentioned or asked that their workplaces not be disclosed. Herr himself refused to be photographed.)

Secrecy has always been an element of ufology, partly due to the U.S. government’s official position on unidentified flying objects. Military and intelligence officials are notoriously tight-lipped on the subject. Various agencies have investigated UFOs since the 1940s; much of this information remains wrapped up as “classified.” (Ufologists are starting to lift the comers of that cloak with Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits.) But could the FBI, the CIA, the FAA, the military, and the state department all be involved in a conspiracy of silence that spans the terms of nine different presidents? Hard-core ufologists swear it’s true.

Some Orion members (Herr included) have never seen a UFO. Others witnessed an inexplicable object in the sky one day and were hooked. All find comfort in each others’ company. A year and a half ago, Herr formed the Orion group by combing the membership lists from three national UFO organizations. He found 63 people living in the San Diego area and called each one. Some fell into the slimmer margins of sanity, while others were simply eccentric. But 21 individuals who fit Herr’s criteria expressed an interest in joining the group. These were the serious types who planned their vacations around UFO conferences and read their ufology journals faithfully. The UFO community is linked, worldwide, by two monthly publications that summarize recent UFO encounters. They also serve as a forum for the various research projects being conducted by ufologists. The writing style is dry, detailed, full of references to other ufology books and articles. They read like medical journals or legal briefs. These are magazines that only a ufologist would take to the beach.

Soon after the group was formed, it contacted police departments and sheriff stations throughout the county, asking them to refer UFO reports to Orion. Some law-enforcement agencies never responded, but most were quite willing to send their UFO calls elsewhere. The Orion phone is hooked up to M an answering machine that is checked every two hours, on the average.

About 75 percent of the calls turn out to be honest mistakes: weather balloons, cloud formations, flares dropped from jets, sun dogs (the reflection of sunlight off ice crystals in the air), and certain stars. Venus, which can be seen either at sunrise or sunset, has confused more than a few skywatchers; air traffic controllers have reportedly given the planet permission to land. Fewer than five percent of UFO reports are hoaxes, usually the work of teen-agers. The remaining 20 percent are considered bona fide UFOs — meaning that their place of origin cannot be determined.

Investigators usually interview their subjects (in person) within 24 hours of a sighting, while their memories are still fresh. If there are several witnesses, each is questioned separately to prevent unintentional paroting. Field interviewers use a set of detailed guidelines and forms printed by a national ufology organization. If the sighting is impressive, an Orion member will formally write up the case and send it to one of the UFO journals. These publications receive submissions from all over the world; being published in one of them is considered an honor. In the years that Herr has been researching UFOs in San Diego, he can remember only one local case that made it into the big leagues of ufology. It involved a flying saucer landing in Lemon Grove.

The date was November 16, 1973. Two 11-year-old boys were walking through the back yard of a vacant house on Crane Street at about 7:00 p.m. when they encountered a dark, disc-shaped object approximately 20 feet in diameter. It had a silver dome on top and was perched on three spindly legs. When one of the boys rapped it with a flashlight, the object rose about five feet off the ground, a row of green lights around the rim began blinking in sequence, and the object began rotating. Then it shined a red light on the children. They turned and ran home to tell their parents.

One of the boys’ mothers called the sheriffs department, and someone there contacted Herr. The next day, he examined the field where the saucer had landed and found that the tall grass was swirled in a counterclockwise direction — as though something had blown it down. Inside the depressed circle were two holes, each one she inches in depth and width. The indentations were made, perhaps, by the spindly legs.

Odd patterns of flattened vegetation are now at the center of a controversy between UFO believers and detractors. During the last four years, more than 600 such unexplained configurations have been discovered in Great Britain. The perfectly geometric formations are found amid otherwise undisturbed crops or fields of grass. Scientists have speculated that the atmosphere contains spinning balls of air that push down on the vegetation. The other explanation involves visiting spaceships.

Physical indentations alone would not build a strong case, according to Herr. A good UFO sighting involves several kinds of evidence and multiple witnesses. For several nights following the Lemon Grove incident, Herr and other UFO investigators canvassed the neighborhood and interviewed approximately 50 people. Tvo adult witnesses said they saw a large lighted object take off from the vicinity of the vacant house. Nine different households remembered interference with their television sets shortly after seven o’clock — the same time the boys reported their experience People reported that the dogs in the neighborhood were howling at that time.

The one drawback to the case was the age of the two primary witnesses. Little boys have been known to invent fantastic stories. But Herr interviewed both children and found them sincere “They would have had to have been excellent actors,” he says. The boys’ behavior immediately after the sighting — “terrifically excited and scared,” according to their parents — is typical for UFO witnesses. “The boys also reported some unusual sensations and behaviors that had been reported [by UFO witnesses] in the past but were not known to the general public,” Herr says. Like other witnesses before them, the boys recalled that while fleeing the UFO, they felt as if they were running in slow motion.

Much of the other evidence — the swirled grass, the spooked pets, and the television static — is also common in UFO sightings. Which leads to a question ufologists love to pose: Why do so many UFO witnesses tell the same story? Numerous witnesses claim they’ve never read about UFOs and don’t particularly believe in them. “If they’re telling lies, why would their patterns be the same?” asks Herr. He says he is often impressed by the “emotional sincerity” of the people he interviews. They may not have seen a UFO, but their honesty cannot be questioned. “I’ve received four hoax calls in the last year, and I knew right away,” he says. “Their [tone] was so mundane” Pranksters can rarely give specific evidence, especially when it comes to the electromagnetic properties of UFOs.

This area of inquiry is one of Herr’s specialties. His theory, stated simply, is that UFOs emit a powerful electrical charge that ionizes the air around them. Among other effects, it shorts out the electrical connections in car engines. Herr has reviewed 414 UFO sightings where witnesses claimed that their vehicles suddenly stalled, their headlights dimmed, and/or their car radios stopped playing. UFO debunkers have postulated that the drivers panicked over a strange sight and flooded their engines. But could this have happened more than 400 times? Herr asks.

Another effect of the highly charged air is interference with radio and television transmissions. “It is virtually impossible to find a case where a UFO was operating within a quarter-mile of a radio or television and (static] didn’t occur,” Herr says. The UFO's electrical charge also creates a magnetic field, setting off certain kinds of burglar alarms and causing power outages. The needles on compasses reportedly spin or rotate in the presence of UFOs. Herr has analyzed 40 such cases, one of them here in Ramona.

The sighting was an especially good one because local ufologists were contacted while it occurred. The year was 1974, and Herr belonged to a group called the San Diego UFO Research Organization. Membership was open to all interested parties, and as a result, Herr says, “No one who had anything to offer wanted to join.” But before one of its members absconded to Louisiana with the group’s answering machine, the organization ran a UFO reporting service.

One afternoon in October, the hot line got a call from the Overfelt family. On a hill near their house, a perfectly round flying object had landed. According to the witnesses — Jeannie, Beth, Linda, and Tony Overfelt, along with their friend Pat Nelson, the object changed color from ruby red to bright white, hovered above the ground, and then streaked across the sky. While this was happening, the Overfelts’ horses were whinnying and bucking, their dog was slamming into the back of his doghouse, the goats were jumping around, and the cat ran into the side of the garage, stunning itself. The family, Herr says, was not faring much better. “There were four adults in the house, and they were running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” he recalls. “Jeannie Overfelt was the only sensible one.”

Jeannie was the 16-year-old daughter who got on the phone and calmly described what was happening while following Herr’s instructions. She checked the TV and found only blue spots and vertical bands. The radio wouldn’t work either. The girl couldn’t find a camera, but she did come across a compass. While the object hovered above the hill, the compass needle rapidly alternated between north and northeast; when the UFO passed overhead, the needle flew off its pivot and lodged against the glass cover. Unfortunately, by the time a field investigator reached the Overfelts’ house, the UFO had disappeared. The family claimed that it was chased by a group of military jets.

As UFO sightings go, the event in Ramona was a classic case. The object was witnessed by six people for 20 minutes in broad daylight. It disturbed animals, affected a compass, and caused television static. The way it maneuvered — hovering for a while, then accelerating rapidly — was typical for UFOs. So was the object’s shape; 55 percent of all reported UFOs are discs. Still, the sighting could have been better, according to Herr. What it lacked was physical evidence.

Tangible proof is something that the UFO community desperately needs. A piece of a spaceship would be nice or maybe a few extraterrestrials, living or dead. (Most ufologists believe that the government possesses both types of evidence, which it has “confiscated” in several instances.) Herr and other local investigators have tried to produce other kinds of documentation, something more scientific than personal testimonies. In the early ’70s, a group of them banded together under the name of Precision Monitoring Systems. This group, composed mostly of engineers, built equipment that measured sudden changes in magnetic fields. The devices, called magnetometers, could record the date and time of magnetic disturbances that occurred within a six-mile radius. Each one was attached to an alarm in an investigator’s house. Fourteen of the magnetometers were placed around the county in hopes of catching a UFO in time to film it. But the devices were too sensitive, and investigators were being roused by heavy trucks and loose change in the pockets of passersby. The magnetometers are now collecting dust in various people’s homes. Mel Podell has one in his attic.

Podell saw his first UFO in the late ’40s, while he was a teenager in North Carolina and before such sightings gained notoriety. Podell was waiting for a bus on a clear, sunny day. “Something dazzled me,” he recalls. “I looked up and saw a bright, elliptical-shaped object. But something about it wasn’t normal. It didn’t move.” He watched the craft hovering above him until his bus came.

The next day, Podell read a newspaper article about the UFO. According to the article, the local Air Force base identified the craft as a slow-moving bomber. Podell didn’t believe it. “I knew bombers were slow in those days, but they didn’t stay still for 20 minutes,” he says. He sought more information on the subject and eventually joined a UFO group. While working as a chemist in the aerospace industry, Podell investigated UFO cases in whatever city he happened to be living.

Today he is retired, living in Encinitas, and able to devote his time to ufology. But “obsessive” doesn’t really describe Podell’s personality; even “passionate” is stretching it. “I don’t like to call it a hobby,” he says of his UFO work. “It’s not exactly recreation. You can’t really call it a vocation either. It’s a persevering interest.” Like other members of Orion, Podell is caught between the presence of convincing evidence and the absence of irrefutable proof. “I’d like to see the outcome after all these years,” he says. “I don’t know if I have any more answers [now] than I did 30 or 40 years ago.”

When the Orion hot line went into operation a year ago, it received three to four calls a month. Now the average is between ten and 15. Local ufologists give two possible reasons: more UFOs are appearing in local skies or more people are reporting their encounters. Except for two so-called “flaps” of sightings — one in the early ’70s and the other between 1976 and 1978 — San Diego has been a quiet area in terms of UFO sightings. Herr and the other investigators worked on one good case a year, maybe two. The definition of “good” can vary, however. A sighting over Grossmont Hospital in 1977 was called “one of the best cases we’ve ever had in San Diego” by a local ufologist interviewed at the time. But Herr, who talked to the main witness, says: “It was a hazy night. I think she saw the moon and got excited.”

The latest flap of sightings seems to have ended on December 8, 1989. Tvo secretaries at a local hospital were driving home from a Christmas party in Old Town at approximately 10:00 p.m., southbound on Interstate 5 in a pickup truck. Just after they passed the Coronado Bridge, one of them noticed something odd. Spaced along the freeway were four red blinking lights suspended in the sky. “At first I thought they were cranes,” says Martha, the passenger in the truck.

(She asked that her last name be withheld to spare her teen-aged daughter embarrassment at school.) “But nothing was holding [the lights] up, and I couldn’t see any other parts.” Martha alerted her co-worker, a woman named Mary, and the two of them tried to come up with an explanation. “I said, ‘OK, Mary, let’s be reasonable,’ ” recalls Martha. “But as we were watching [one of the lights], it took off. It just went sideways. It whooshed. It made a whooshing sound. Then we got excited. I said, ‘Mary! Follow it! Follow it!’ ”

The two secretaries exited the freeway at Division Street.

Mary knew of a church parking lot that overlooked the city, so they drove there immediately. For a half-hour, they watched the lights cavort over downtown San Diego. “They were skimming across the sky but not going very fast,” says Martha. “It’s like they were cruising.” Every so often, the lights would gather together and then disperse at different angles. When one of the lights headed in their direction, Martha became frightened. “I said, ‘Mary! It’s coming straight for us!’ ” she recalls.

The two women crouched down, with Martha sitting on the floor of the truck. But she was able to see the object, which was a silvery blue color, pass over the vehicle. “It was so close, if I had a gun, I could have shot at it,” she says. “But the thing is, it made no noise. It could go right over your house and you’d never know.” She describes the craft as an octagon with a

Ushaped appendage on the back. Under the V were three bright “pulsating” lights. There were no windows or doors. She compares the size to that of a bus.

Mary and Martha drove out of the parking lot after the object swooped over them. “By then we were kinda nervous, so we left,” says Martha. At home she tried to persuade her husband to go back out and look for the UFOs. But he didn’t believe her story. Neither did her son, but he agreed to take a ride if she bought him a Slurpee at the 7-Eleven. But the UFOs were gone by the time they ventured out. Martha’s next move was to call Channel 10 to see if anyone else reported a UFO. The answer was no. But someone at the station gave her the Orion phone number.

Both women have been interviewed, and Orion hopes to find more people who saw the red lights. A large number of witnesses gives a sighting more credibility, especially if the people don’t know each other, live in different areas, and work at different occupations. UFO journals and books contain testimonies from construction workers, corporate presidents, ministers, nurses, and appliance salesmen. Every socioeconomic rung is represented, although two occupations appear more often than others: airplane pilots and police officers. Pilots are in an obvious position for seeing UFOs.

Police officers and sheriff deputies have the advantage of being out at night, often patrolling the remote areas that UFOs seem to favor.

Over the years, San Diego has had several sightings involving law enforcement personnel. The last one, on September 26, 1989, was witnessed by a U.S. Border Patrol supervisor, who agreed to be interviewed if his name wasn’t used.

The agent was one of two dozen witnesses who reported seeing a conical-shaped beam coming out of a black cloud. The time was 6:00 a.m., shortly after sunrise. He was driving down Highway 94 in Dulzura. “It was a clear morning, except for this strange, stormy black cloud hanging low,” recalls the agent. The beam “was very bright and had a definite shape to it,” he says. The agent discounts an obvious explanation — the rising sun — because the object was in the western sky. As for airplanes and helicopters, the agent says he’s familiar with modem aircraft, and nothing is equipped with that kind of light. “As far as there being little men on a ship, I can’t tell you that,” he adds. “I can’t say what it was.”

One of the other witnesses on September 26 was Michael Grant, a columnist for the San Diego Union. Grant, who saw the object from Jamul, wrote about his experience that same week. Some of Grant’s readers (including the border patrol supervisor) began contacting him to say they also saw the conical beam. Grant wrote a second column about the response he received, publishing the names of the border patrol supervisor and a few other witnesses. The agent was ribbed by some of his co-workers, he says; others warned him that such an admission damaged his reputation and reflected badly on the border patrol.

But the agent also heard from another border patrolman who saw the same conical beam on the same day in Bonita. UFO sightings are not uncommon among border patrol employees, he says, relating stories he’s heard from agents who worked for him in Nevada and Vermont. While this is his first UFO sighting, the supervisor’s parents had a strange experience many years ago. They were camping next to Willow Lake, Wyoming, when they saw a huge, silver, cigar-shaped object with a green vapor trail. It flew over their heads in the middle of the afternoon. That night, on the radio, they heard that the object had been widely seen. The supervisor remembers that his parents, whom he describes as “ultraconservative,” did not like talking about the experience.

Despite what he’s seen and heard, the border patrol supervisor won’t express a belief in visitors from outer space. “I’m a Christian person, and I don’t know,” he says. Maybe all these spaceships are really top-secret military aircraft, he suggests. The agent also has doubts about people who claim they’ve been in contact with visitors from outer space. “If [extraterrestrials] want to leam about humans, you’d think they wouldn’t pick out the nuts,” he says. “Why don’t they park on some senator’s lawn? Why do they always [visit] some yo-yo with an IQ of 60?”

UFO “contactees” are among the more dubious members of the UFO community. Contactees receive communications from space aliens, usually through mental telepathy. The messages are often warnings about air pollution, nuclear annihilation, and other doomsday possibilities. Equally implausible are the “abduction” cases. During the last two decades — and especially during the last five years — hundreds of people have reported being immobilized in their cars or homes, transported into alien spacecraft, and physically examined by strange-looking creatures. The archetypal aliens, as described by abductees, are short (four to five feet) beings with large heads, cat-like eyes, and translucent skin. Many of those abducted believe they were kidnapped several times during their lives, often beginning in their childhoods. (Their memories are usually plumbed during hypnosis.) Furthermore, some claim that their children or their parents had similar experiences. Ufologists have found that UFO sightings and abductions tend to run in families. Some speculate that the aliens “select” certain people and follow them for years, using the same approach as a medical or social scientist.

Herr and other members of Orion don’t advertise the fact that they believe in alien abductions, but most of them do. Herr says he initially had his doubts, but the similarities in all the abduction cases have made him into a believer. “Yes, it’s improbable,” Herr admits. “But probability is no guarantee of reality. The fact that it’s improbable doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The point we have to keep in mind is that the [UFO] phenomenon is not a natural one.” Concerning the “repeat witnesses” — those who repeatedly see UFOs — Herr says: “Every sighting, without exception, is an intentional display on the part of the UFO occupants. They seem to be interested in people with psychic ability. I’ve never talked to a repeat witness who didn’t have some sort of paranormal experience — either telepathy, precognitive dreams, or just knowing other people’s thoughts on occasion.”

Herr has investigated several abduction cases, and the most credible one, he says, was a former police reservist who lived in Spring Valley. The man, who now works as a computer repairman, will only allow his first name to be used.

David was driving home from Alpine late one night in 1981. As he passed by the Singing Hills Country Club, he noticed something odd in his headlights: a dark, disc-shaped object was hovering about 15 feet above the road. It was the size of a railroad boxcar. David’s car stopped almost instantly, and a bright light flashed in his face. The next thing he knew, his car was moving again, and the large disc was rising rapidly. David took out his service revolver and shot at the object several times. Then he turned around and drove home at a high speed. Once inside the house, he locked the door and aimed his gun out the front picture window. “They’re out there,” he told his wife. “They’re going to get me.” She took the gun away from him and called the neighbors. The next morning, David couldn’t remember any part of the incident.

In the days that followed, David suffered from headaches. His neck, wrists, and ankles were sore and had abrasion marks. Herr heard about the case (he doesn’t remember how) and persuaded David to meet with a hypnotist. While under hypnosis, David recalled two small creatures taking him from his car and later putting him back in. He was able to draw a picture of them, but that’s all he could remember. David did report, however, that his digital watch changed from a.m. to p.m. that night. Also, the tape in his cassette player, as well as the ones on the dashboard, were garbled. He also had trouble starting his car, which was less than a year old. The battery and electronic ignition were ruined and had to be replaced.

Herr has kept track of David over the last eight years in hopes of bringing him to a Lemon Grove boys (who would be about 26 years old today) and ask them to undergo hypnosis. Like the police reservist, the children had a memory lapse, a period of time they couldn’t account for. (This is taken as a sign of a possible abduction.)

All ufologists seem to have cases they can’t put to rest. Years after the initial incident, they’re still trying to gather more evidence.

Peter Schlesinger, a manufacturing engineer at Rohr Industries, has been investigating local UFO sightings for the last 15 years. He’s worked on maybe ten good cases, he says, but the one involving the disappearing cops still haunts him. It was on May 27, 1978, that he got a call about a triangular craft next to the Chula Vista Harbor Drive-In. One of the magnetometers belonging to Precision Monitoring Systems had been set off. UFO witnesses were also calling the Chula Vista Police Department and the sheriffs station in Imperial Beach. Schlesinger and another field investigator were dispatched to the Imperial Beach pier. When they arrived, fishermen were walking towards the shore, leaving their gear behind. “They wouldn’t talk to us,” recalls Schlesinger. “They just stared at us, blankly, like zombies.” The investigators were able to question a young couple with a baby, who ran a concession stand on the pier. They were very frightened, he says, and so was their dog; it had squeezed under the bed and couldn’t get out.

After taking a report on the UFO, the investigators went to Chula Vista to question three policemen and a dispatcher who saw the UFO from the station’s roof. Schlesinger spoke with two of the policemen that night, but when he called them the next day to arrange a follow-up interview, their supervisor said they were not available for comment. Schlesinger, a former SDPD officer, obtained their home addresses that same day through a friend in the Chula Vista Police Department. He and the other investigator immediately drove over to the officers’ houses. But no one was home, and he could see through the front windows that both places were vacant. “We could not understand what happened. We thought we had the wrong addresses,” recalls Schlesinger. He double-checked with his source and was told the addresses were correct. He also learned that the two officers no longer worked for the Chula Vista Police Department.

Three years later, Schlesinger located one of the officers, using a nationwide network of UFO investigators who assist on each others’ cases. But the officer, who now worked for a police department in Montana, refused to be interviewed. Schlesinger admits that the story sounds incredible — especially the part about the two officers moving out of their houses in less than 24 hours. He speculates that some government agency either scared them off or offered them a lot of money to relocate.

Last December 10, the members of Orion got together for one of their infrequent meetings. They drove from Lakeside, from Solana Beach, from National City, and from Rolando. This was not, however, a Christmas party. From the moment they walked into Mel Podell’s house, the talk was about UFOs. The ufologists discussed the recent film version of the book Communion (overall review: forgettable); a “newsletter” they received from the author of Communion (Is he authentic or just out to make a million?); a 1990 calendar of UFO pictures (some of them looked retouched, it was noted); and the recent sightings around San Diego (who investigated them, and what did they find?).

John Andrews, the owner of a Lemon Grove company that makes airplane models, showed off a stack of color photos. By spending two days outside the fence of a military testing range in Nevada, Andrews was able to photograph the Stealth bomber in flight. Also known as the B2, the Stealth bomber is dark, metallic, and shaped like a boomerang. Put colored lights around the perimeter, and it matches many UFO descriptions.

Ufologists admit that some unexplained spacecraft may belong to the military. “But why,” asks Herr, “would [the military] test them over populated areas at all hours of the day and night? Why would they have been testing them 40 years ago?” He also doesn’t think that human technology can produce aircraft that make 90-degree turns or zigzag across the sky, moving from one horizon to the other in a matter of seconds. Herr points out that all jets make some noise — even the Stealth bomber. “It is neither silent nor can it hover,” he says.

Perhaps for this reason, the UFO community is astir over a series of sightings in Gulf Breeze, Florida — despite the fact that Gulf Breeze is situated between four military air stations. Pat Watson, a new member of Orion who recently relocated from Florida, researched the Gulf Breeze cases while writing a free-lance magazine article. Watson obliged the other Orion members with a lengthy, detailed report on what she uncovered: 73 UFO sightings in that area over the last two years; 135 witnesses, including a city councilwoman and numerous retired military officers; almost 100 photographs of various aircraft; and several suspected abductions. Watson also reported strange personal experiences while working on the UFO article. For example, she would be interviewing someone on the phone and the line would start to crackle. Or her word processor would “blip out,” she said, “as though it was being accessed.”

Orion members discounted Watson’s suspicions of alien interference; it was probably the military listening in, they speculated. Articles about the Gulf Breeze cases have appeared in the Chicago IHbune, the Washington Times, and the Miami Herald, but Orion members were surprised that the story has not received more national attention. Someone suggested an “unspoken agreement” in the press when it comes to the topic of UFOs. Others nodded their heads knowingly.

During a refreshment break, Orion members talked about their UFO experiences. A pharmacist for Fedco said he’s never seen a UFO. Neither had an aerospace engineer working at

General Dynamics. But the engineer said he was always fascinated with the subject, even as a child. “I would make flying saucers from plates and hang them from the ceiling,” he recalled. Tvo women critiqued the Gulf Breeze report; the best approach, they agreed, would have been to dog the Air Force “tooth and nail” for more information.

During the second half of the meeting, Herr and Podell updated the group on the spate of recent sightings. In addition to the San Marcos case, there was a report in Rancho Santa Fe from a woman pushing a baby stroller. She claims to have seen a strange object with dangling tentacles flying among some hot-air balloons. An investigator checked with the balloon companies, and none of the pilots could remember seeing anything strange that day. (One company said it has a balloon with dangling ribbons, but it had been grounded for weeks.) The conical-shaped beam reported in Michael Grant’s column remains a mystery; no other physical evidence has surfaced, and Grant wasn’t interested in pursuing it further. “It was just a social phenomenon to him,” Herr reported.

A November case in Escondido has also hit a dead end. A middle-aged couple is adamant about seeing a boomerang with red and blue lights land sometime after midnight near Highland Valley Road. The couple awakened their landlady and her daughter, who also saw the object. But no other witnesses have been found, and the original couple has become uncooperative with the Orion investigator. (“Our dear [member] David Ortiz asked the fellow if he’d been drinking,” Herr later confides. “Now he won’t talk to us.”) The day before the Orion meeting, the hot line got a call from a postal carrier named Stan Ford who spotted a huge, black, cigar-shaped aircraft in La Mesa. It was at 11:00 a.m., and the sky was clear of clouds. The postman went into a nearby store and brought the owner outside to see it, according to Herr. Both the postman and the store owner have been interviewed, but once again, no other witnesses have surfaced.

Podell mentions that Orion’s phone number, listed as “UFO Reporting Service” in the white pages, will now appear in the North and East County directories. But the additional listings mean an additional charge, and the telephone bill has risen to $17 a month. Which leads to the mundane subject of membership dues. “Our budget is dwindling,” says Podell. “It’s down to the $20 mark.” The membership dues — $12 a year — are normally collected in July, and Podell requests that some people pay them in advance. Herr mentions that five or six of those present have never paid any dues.

“Are there any suggestions as to where we can go with this group and what we should do?” Herr asks. Someone offers the idea of writing a letter to Duncan Hunter, who could assist the group in obtaining classified information on UFOs. But the idea dies after a cynical comment about politicians. Herr mentions that the recent sightings around San Diego should be written up and mailed to the UFO journals. He also suggests compiling an archive of all UFO sightings in San Diego’s history. Neither task turns up any volunteers. But the group is intrigued by the idea of a debate between Orion members and some local UFO detractors, most notably Elie Shneour.

Shneour, owner of a biomedical research company, is the founder of the San Diego Skeptics. “Why in the world are you writing an article on that?” he asked when contacted on the subject of UFOs. Shneour says that despite all the data accumulated by ufologists, they have yet to come up with one piece of solid, overwhelming, irrefutable proof. Why has there been no physical evidence left behind? he asks. Shneour says he visited the site of a supposed UFO landing in South America. Ufologists gave him a piece of metal from the site, saying that the substance was an alloy unknown on Earth. Shneour took the substance to a university lab and tested it himself. “It turned out to be a plain alloy from some kind of melted cookware,” he says.

Concerning the large number of witnesses on some UFO cases, Shneour says, “Hundreds of people are easily mesmerized.” What would it take to convince him that space aliens have visited Earth? A photograph or a videotape of an extraterrestrial walking out of a spaceship. Or a UFO sighting so remarkable that it makes the front pages of all the major newspapers. Or physical evidence that is validated by a panel from the National Academy of Sciences. “The burden of proof is on them,” Shneour says, adding that he’d be glad to debate the local ufologists anytime. “I’ll make mincemeat out of them.”

Herr’s response? “The scientific community has been unyielding in its hostility and dogma against UFOs.” While he readily admits that there’s no irrefutable proof, Herr claims that “professional skeptics” like Shneour are not really familiar with the evidence that does exist. “They don’t just doubt, they deny. They deny even the possibility.” Herr and the other ufologists would like to see a serious, thorough, and well-financed research effort on the subject of UFOs. Someday, he hopes, ufology will take its rightful place in the world of mainstream science. “If UFOs are a valid phenomenon,” he says, “then there are other beings out there. We can’t think of many more things more important than that.”

I Thought I Saw a Saucer

He started as an author, evolved into a guru, and put San Diego on the UFO map. But modern-day ufologists don’t have a kind word to say about George Adamski. They have, in fact, made an effort to discredit him.

Adamski often went up to Palomar Mountain to observe, photograph, and sketch UFOs. He settled in the area in the early ’60s, after gaining some recognition, and notoriety, for his book Flying Saucers Have Landed. UFOs were still a fledgling phenomenon at the time, and Adamski was one of the movement’s first leaders. His devotees lived in Wisconsin and Guadalajara, but the group’s headquarters was in a white, two-story house in Valley Center. The UFO Education Center, as it was called, contained an extensive research library of UFO books and photographs; much of the material was produced by Adamski himself.

Adamski claimed to have met several visitors from outer space. In his most famous encounter, Adamski was hanging around the lobby of a downtown Los Angeles hotel when he met two out-of-town visitors. One man was from Mars and the other was from Venus. They put him in a black, four-door Pontiac and drove him into the Mojave Desert. There he had an unexpected reunion with a former acquaintance from Venus. Afterward, everyone went for a ride in a flying saucer.

George Adamski claimed, in one of his books, that two civilian scientists from the Point Loma Naval Electronics Laboratory asked him to photograph UFOs for the military. He later supplied them with “two good pictures,” he wrote.

Not true, says Eric Herr, a local UFO investigator who tracked down and interviewed one of the naval electronics scientists — 39 years later. The man claimed that he and his colleague met Adamski by chance, when they stopped at a cafe on Palomar Mountain. “Everything he wrote about us was fiction, pure fiction,” the man said. Herr published the interview in a national UFO journal.

Adamski died in 1965, leaving behind a brood of battling followers who sued each other over Adamski’s copyrights. By the late 70s, the UFO center had reached cult status, and Ted Patrick was hired to deprogram some members. The group dispersed soon after.

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